As we got closer and closer to our destination, we slowly realised this may not be the best area in France. Don’t get me wrong – nature-wise it was breathtaking; green meadows and dense forests intermingled in a beautiful tapestry rolling over the gentle hills. Every so often a beautiful farm setup would catch my eye. But if you looked closer, the houses were just a little bit run down, the little towns were just a little bit void of life, some places were unoccupied, here and there a broken shutter that hasn’t seen paint in many a year hanging skew on a single rusted hinge. Maybe we were weary of what was to come, or maybe the route we took was a precursor to our destination?
So as we got side-tracked by a pile of uncollected rubbish on the one side and some building rumble bulldozed into the forest on the other, we almost missed the steep turn-off to La Ferme des Vergnes. We were tempted to translate it to “the farm on the verges”… So we avoided some goats, parked in an area overlooking an uncompleted duck pond (nice big pond though!)
We were escorted to the mobile home which was to be our humble abode for the next few days. Upon entering we were not treated to the usual welcome tour, but were abruptly asked for the outstanding amount, in cash. We had no cash so we were directed to the nearest ATM in a little town 15 minutes away. The mobile home was clean, had enough creaky beds for all for all of us, but it had no soap, no cleaning materials, hardly any toilet paper and no towels. Quite a challenge at the end of a two month trip with no towels! So off we rushed to said little town to get what we needed to make do. A thick role of paper towels and a single cheap towel and some cups we could leave behind had to do the job!
On the positive side, the collection of animals was great. Their approach is that most of the animals are free-range, which makes it possible for the guests to interact with all the animals, which the children (and we) thoroughly enjoyed. I may miss an animal or two, but they had one mini-horse, one donkey, 2 lamas, 2 alpacas, 3 small sheep, about 7 goats, 7 geese, many different chickens and chicks, many ducks, 2 pigs, 2 dogs, as well as some pheasants and peacocks in a cage.
However, the open integration with the animals introduces a few challenges too. Some of the geese were a bit territorial and a bit too keen to give a pinch or two. With geese, in particular, this can easily happen when guests tease the animals. As bizarre as it seems, we have even seen some of the other guests chase the geese and chickens with sticks. Geese don’t forget, so such behaviour aggravates them for life. So that’s the challenge with having guests interact with your animals unsupervised.
So the first encounter with the geese – and they make sure they are dead-center in the middle of everything – sent dear little animal-loving Micaela scrambling for the mobile home. The next few times we had to carry her past the geese, but eventually she picked up the courage to go and explore on her own, going past the geese and all. So on a positive side that taught the children valuable life approaches, which a staged and caged interaction with animals can never do.
The other challenge with all the animals roaming freely, is that there is goat, sheep, goose and chicken poo all over the place. So keeping the mobile homes clean is quite a job. (No wonder that she had stringent rules that you weren’t allowed to take your shoes into the pool enclosure. But the swimming pools rules – listed as articles 1 to 15 – maybe they have a lawyer for a friend – were so bizarre that we just gave up on swimming.)
The mini-horse and donkey were kept behind an electrified fence, which wasn’t marked, which led to a shocking first encounter!
I took a walk on one of the paths. The place was enormous! They have these beautiful meadows surrounded by natural forest hedges. What potential! You can keep so many animals and grow so many fruits and vegetables there! They had recently planted a new orchard near the mobile homes. But I guess (and it’s an unsubstantiated guess, but that’s what it looks like) that they just don’t have the manpower or the drive to see things through to that next level to make a real good lasting impression on guests.
So this place was quite an eye-opener. Although we also want to have more animals, we have learnt a number of valuable lessons about what works and what doesn’t. You have to be so careful with animals when there will be guests around.
The other valuable lesson we learnt is that it quickly becomes evident if you don’t have the manpower or the drive or the care to see things through to the level you need to when you cater for guests. If you’re going into agritourism, that is really, really important.
So as we head back to the cold Victorian end of winter, we have to reflect on all these amazing experiences we were very fortunate to have, and try and incorporate these learnings into our plans, dreams, aspirations, and of course, into our realities. The journey continues.